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The Daily Tar Heel

Editorial: Smashing the paywall between academic journals


Students use Davis Library's study spaces in Chapel Hill, NC, on Sept. 23. 

For graduate and undergraduate students alike, academic research is pivotal to our education. The use of peer-reviewed articles not only aids our understanding of the disciplines we study but is often a required part of our coursework.

It's easy for students to disregard the costs behind accessing hundreds of thousands of peer-reviewed materials. For universities, however, the bill is staggering. The business of academic research publishing is to blame.

Ideally, researchers are paid a salary to conduct and write their research, typically via grants and their institutions. Then, the research authors pay a fee to submit their work to be peer-reviewed. In many cases, these peer reviewers are not compensated for their work.

Then, research databases cash in by charging users subscription fees for access to published materials. 

These databases are exploiting researchers, institutions and their users. This isn’t the way it has to be. 

Assuming researchers get paid a salary for their work, they are not reliant on publishing fees to make a living.

Researchers aren’t to blame. These publishing monoliths are the ones building costly paywalls around researchers’ content, even going as far as to charge authors a fee if they do not want their work behind a paywall.

These fees stack up for universities and individuals. On Elsevier, which is responsible for 18 percent of the world’s research output, one article could cost almost $30. A JSTOR individual research subscription — which still limits access and PDF downloads — costs upwards of $200 annually. Some sites, like ProQuest, don’t even allow individuals to purchase subscriptions. This privilege is reserved for universities and research institutions.

Disparities exist between the disciplines as well. For example, scientific journals are more often open access than humanities journals.

Subscriptions can total hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars, placing significant strain on university library budgets. Since 1986, academic library budgets have risen 79 percent. The cost of research journal subscriptions, however, is up 300 percent above inflation in the same period.

These financial barriers produce issues for university libraries that already have to sacrifice so much of their budget for subscriptions and for individuals outside of universities seeking knowledge. The only beneficiaries of this process are the databases that profit.

Because research is funded by grants, taxpayers pay about $140 billion annually to fuel academic research that they cannot access.

University librarians can choose to ditch these subscriptions but at the risk of students losing access to academic materials. The almost-monopolistic structure of academic research publishing has trapped universities and the students they serve in an endless loop of reliance on the access that costly subscriptions provide.

The solutions to making academic databases more accessible are imperfect and require an overhaul of the research industry.

But it's clear these resources need to be free for all. That means fixing library budgets, but also pushing for state funding so these databases can make people of all education levels more knowledgeable. 


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